More API Security Choices - OAuth, SSL, SAML, and rolling your own


More API Security Choices - OAuth, SSL, SAML, and rolling your own »

Session based Authentication – cumbersome with RESTful APIs

Lots of APIs  support session-based authentication. In these schemes, the user first has to call a “login” method which takes the username and password as input and returns a unique session key. The user must include the session key in each request, and call “logout” when they are done. This way, authentication is kept to a single pair of API calls and everything else is based on the session.

This type of authentication maps very naturally to a web site, because users are used to “logging in” when they start working with a particular site and “logging out” when they are done.

However, session-based authentication is much more complex when associated with an API. It requires that the API client keep track of state, and depending on the type of client that can be anything from painful to impossible. Session-based authentication, among other things, makes your API less “RESTful” - an API client can’t just make one HTTP request, but now a minimum of three.

The Role of OAuth

Today, many APIs also support OAuth authentication. OAuth was designed to solve the application-to-application security problem. The idea of OAuth is that it gives the user of a service or web site a way to conditionally grant access to another application. OAuth makes it possible for a human user to individually grant other APIs or sites access to their account without sharing their actual password. It works by giving a “token” to each API or site that will access the account, which the user may revoke at any time they wish.
For instance, if web site wants access to the Twitter API on behalf of John Smith, then OAuth specifies the protocol that must go through to get an OAuth token for the Twitter API. Part of this process requires John Smith to log in to his Twitter account using his normal username and password (which, in the OAuth protocol, are never seen by and authorize FooBar to access his account. The result is that will have an OAuth token that gives it access to John Smith’s account. If, later on, John Smith decides he no longer trusts, he has the option to revoke that OAuth token without affecting his regular password or any other accounts.
This process makes OAuth the ideal for communication from one application to another – for instance, allowing MySpace to post photos to your Twitter account without requiring that you enter your Twitter password every time you want to do it – but it can be used for any kind of API communications as well.

Two-Way SSL, X.509, SAML, WS-Security...

Once we leave the world of “plain HTTP” we encounter many other ways of authentication, from SAML, X.509 certificates and two-way SSL, which are based on secure distribution of public keys to individual clients, to the various WS-Security specifications, which build upon SOAP to provide... well, just about everything.
An API that will primarily be used by “enterprise” customers – that is, big IT organizations – might consider these other authentication mechanisms such as an. X.509 certificate or SAML for more assurance over authentication process than a simple username/password. Also, a large enterprise may have an easier time accessing an API written to the SOAP standard because those tools can import a WSDL file and generate an API client in a few minutes.

The idea is to know your audience. If your audience is a fan of SOAP and WSDL, then consider some of the more SOAP-y authentication mechanisms like SAML and the various WS-Security specifications. (And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, then your audience probably isn’t in that category!)

Rolling Your Own

In between OAuth, HTTP Basic, and the basic API key are many alternatives. It seems that there are as many other API authentication schemes as there are APIs. Amazon Web Services, Facebook, and some Google APIs, for instance, are some big APIs that combine an API key with both public and secret data, usually through some sort of encryption code, to generate a secure token for each request.
The issue – every new authentication scheme requires API clients to implement it. On the other hand, OAuth and HTTP Basic authentication are already supported by many tools. The big guys may be able to get away with defining their own authentication standards but it’s tough for every API to do things its own way.


Most authentication parameters are useless, or even dangerous, without SSL. For instance, in “HTTP Basic” authentication the API must be able to see the password the client used, so the password is encoded – but not encrypted – in a format called “base 64.” It’s easy turn this back into the real password. The antidote to this is to use SSL to encrypt everything sent between client and server. This is usually easy to do and does not add as much of a performance penalty as people often think. (With Apigee’s products, we see a 10-15 percent drop in throughput when we add SSL encryption.)
Some security schemes, such as OAuth, are designed to be resistant to eavesdropping. For instance, OAuth includes a “nonce” on each request, so that even if a client intercepts an OAuth token on one request, they cannot use it on the next. Still, there is likely other sensitive information in the request as well.

In general, if your API does not use SSL it also potentially exposes everything that your API does.